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Bach - Christmas Oratorio - Audiophile Audition

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The Bach is a given—one of the most joyous works he ever wrote, it is a bit unusual in that it was not given at a single church setting, but spread over six different days in true cantata-style. However, what is unusual is the presence of a narrator in the guise of the Evangelist, not as involved as in the Passions perhaps, but significant nonetheless, and James Gilchrist does an excellent job as our Nativity Guide. This unifying factor certainly lends itself to the notion that these six pieces were envisioned by the composer as being performed Oratorio-style all at once (though there is no evidence that this actually happened) even though the designations for the work—the first, second, and third days of Christmas, followed by New Year’s Day and the Circumcision of Christ, first Sunday of the New Year, and Epiphany—indicated a five-week spread in performance.

Stephen Layton has been turning out some gorgeous recordings in the last 10 years or so, and this one adds to the estimable lineage. The playing is joyous, spirited, and alive, while the whole solo crew is intensely engaged and the chorus nothing short of outstanding. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment plays as well as any period band on record, and I found this whole recording to be an uplifting and at times riveting experience. Top of the list? Probably not, as I cannot say it dislodges recordings like the Gardiner (Archiv) and especially the sumptuous and soothing Rilling on Hänssler. But it’s certainly right up there with them, a honey of a reading that will bring lots of Christmas joy to anyone who so desires.

John Henry

Bach - Christmas Oratorio
Hyperion Records CDA68031/2